Movies

‘Jaws’ Writer Carl Gottlieb On The Infamous Legacy Of ‘The Mayor From Jaws’ And The Character’s Sudden Modern Relevance

Over the last few months we’ve been hearing a lot about the “Mayor From Jaws” (also known as Mayor Larry Vaughn, portrayed by Murray Hamilton). There he is, the smiling mayor, assuring residents and visitors to Amity that the beaches are totally safe, even though people keep getting eaten by a shark. It’s an apt analogy when compared to today and the “reopening of the economy” as cases of Covid-19 continue to spike across the United States. Like in Jaws, we’re being told by our nation’s highest leaders that everything is safe, but common sense is telling us a different story. And rewatching Jaws on its recently released 4k, which is beautiful, it’s a more apt analogy than people might even realize. Watching the movie today, it’s like all of this was predicted.

Infamously, even though people kept getting killed by a shark, the mayor is still in office three years later during the events of Jaws 2. And he’s back to thinking sharks aren’t a threat because they already went though that and it’s over now, which also sounds pretty familiar.

It’s weird, because “The Mayor From Jaws” used to seem so unrealistic, that no one would be this brazen about “the local economy” when people are dying right in front of his face. As it turns out, almost every politician is “The Mayor From Jaws.” (Let’s not forget, here in New York City, instead of taking early precautions, our own mayor suggested we all go to the movies, even handing out a recommendation. As you probably know, it didn’t turn out too well here.)

There’s been so much written about the “The Mayor From Jaws,” I decided to go to the source and see what he had to say. As it turns out, Carl Gottlieb, who wrote both Jaws and Jaws 2, has quite a bit to say about the Mayor’s legacy. And he has a lot to say about what he’s seeing happen across the United States. Gottlieb, now 82, isn’t too pleased there are people literally on the beaches, throwing caution to the wind. And he has choice words for our leaders who are echoing the characters he first wrote 45 years ago, who he says also have a special place in hell.

I used to think the mayor from Jaws was over the top and no one would act like he did. Turns out you were right and everyone is the mayor from Jaws.

In the book, the mayor was much more venal – and also he was beholden to the mafia for this real estate condo complex or something. There was a whole subplot in the novel about the mayor and his business dealings, which we thought was extraneous. But the point was, and I think the reason Steven (Spielberg) cast Murray Hamilton, is because Murray could be sleazy and a villain, but he was also a sympathetic human being. He had humanity. He was trying to quit smoking. He really was concerned for the welfare of the town.

Well, he says, “We depend on this for our lives,” talking about the summer economy. And that is a sympathetic viewpoint. But Richard Dreyfuss is basically Fauci going, “I get that, but people are going to die.”

Yep. The parallels are all there. I have a feeling that there has always been that tension between private gain and the public good, whether it’s the water in Detroit or even just in any of the millions of things in which the vested political and social interests – or in modern terms the oligarchy – wants to do things one way. And we needed some sort of antagonist besides the shark. Because the shark, first of all, we couldn’t see the shark for a long time, and the shark didn’t speak. The shark never said, “I’m going to kill some people,” the way a Western villain would do. So in order for the guys to be the good guys, we needed somebody from the other side. I took the opportunity to give him a lot to say about the establishment’s point of view.

And he has a very telling line. In the hospital scene he says, “My kids were on that beach, too.” So he wasn’t a callous prick just leading that family to their death in the water. Basically, he’s a good politician, and he’s thinking of what the philosophers called, “the greatest good for the greatest number.” And at the time that he’s behaving that way, there is an opportunity for self-delusion. If he wants to believe it’s a boating accident, then that’s what it is. I have not revisited Jaws 2 for quite a while, but he’s still the mayor.

Yes, he is. Was it a conscious decision to bring the mayor back? In that it was showing there weren’t any repercussions for his actions? Or was it just because Murray Hamilton is so good and of course you’re going to bring him back and let him play this role again?

They started with a different director and a different screenplay. So by the time everything was in place, Murray was on board, they had a part for him and everything. And since I had to do an extensive rewrite under great pressure, it was bad enough we had to replace half the teenagers and give them a reason and invent backstories and activities for them that were real, or appeared real. I didn’t want to start unpacking, “Okay, now do I have to rethink the mayor, too?” And Roy Scheider was appearing kind of under protest. He didn’t want to do Jaws 2.

Right, he just left The Deer Hunter.

Yeah. He had to do it. So he wasn’t happy. And the director and I were hired after the picture started shooting, and they fired the director and shit-canned the script and recast some of the teenagers. So there was a lot to do and I didn’t worry about the mayor anymore. He was there. It was like, the shark is back, so is the mayor. It’s a sequel.

Well, it works. Because now he’s back to believing there can’t be another shark. Just like people now are trying to ignore the numbers. And then he’s mad Roy Scheider is even looking for the shark. It’s like not wanting to test today because numbers might go up.

And if you hear the frustration in your voice, you can imagine the frustration in a large part of the population who get it, who understand the craziness of it. And the reason, I mean, the times are as crazy as they are is we’ve never had a global pandemic. We’ve never had this combination of circumstances before.

One of the things I found most remarkable is when it’s announced the beach is closing for 24 hours, after people have died, the town people get very angry. You also predicted that.

I mean, if somebody is willfully ignoring reality, you just have you say to yourself, “Well, Trump is Jesus Christ, he’s the anointed one, he is our president, so we have to stick with him no matter what. Just like the disciples stuck with Jesus, we have to stick with this man who is leading us. And we’ve accepted him.” And that’s the base. That’s 27 percent, 30 percent of the white population of America. And, as they say, there’s no cure for stupid. The only dark hope is that by ignoring reality, they will themselves become infected and be removed from the gene pool. They’re all candidates for the Darwin Awards. And because I’m an old person and they don’t care about me – I’m one of the people they’re willing to sacrifice – I’m perfectly willing to see all those yahoos cough their way to hell as a result of going to the beach last week. If they don’t care about me, I don’t care about them.

So, before we go, what’s the legacy of the mayor from Jaws and Jaws 2? Because it is really something how accurate it all is.

I think the lesson, the takeaway, and now more than ever, there is going to be an inescapable tension between – and I’m going to call them the oligarchy; the establishment, the monied classes, the one percent – and the rest of us and the rest of humanity. And without some strong institution like the medieval church, to intervene, people are just going to go out for themselves. And there were some economic theorists who believe that’s the best thing for society, and they cling to that. There’s a whole group of people who sincerely believe that the economic interests of the few trump … I hate that word.

Right…

If the economic interests of the few are properly served, the ultimate effect on society will be benevolent. That a rising tide lifts all boats, as they try to say. And we know from grim experience with The Great Depression and subsequent economic downturns that that’s not true. But as long as it’s an article of faith for free market economics and the Republican Party, which embraces that, we’re stuck with that kind of retrograde thinking. And there’s a special place in hell for Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and that ever-shrinking number of Trump cabinet advisors and ministers who have drank the Kool-Aid. And I don’t know what’s to be done about them except trust on the wisdom and cooperative nature of humanity to say, “No, that’s wrong. Medicare is important. All that stuff is important.” And we’ll see.

What’s your reaction when you see the mayor from Jaws referenced so much these days? A character you helped create.

Well, as somebody who has worked as a creative person my whole life in show business, one of the highest honors, one of the things that makes you most proud is when you create something – now, I’m speaking as a writer, not as a director or an actor or something – but when you create something that becomes part of the culture, whether it’s a line of dialogue like, “We’re going to need a bigger boat,” or a character who everybody recognizes. When you create something that becomes part of the culture, then you’re transcending history. Then you’re doing something that, if you’re lucky, lives for hundreds of years, as long as there’s a language and a culture that has a common base, common root.

So, I mean, yeah, I get a little tired of people congratulating me on it. Because, at the time, we were just trying to do a job. And in my mind, doing the job meant creating believable characters saying believable things in a believable situation. And Steven got that. Steven was a huge proponent of that. I mean, he cast amateur actors and he chose camera angles that showed you the charm and the tension. The man’s a genius, let’s face it.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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